Research planning with DNA

How do you use DNA in your family history research?

Do you approach it with a specific research question in mind and see if the DNA data provides evidence to help you answer it? Do you analyse the data and draw your research questions from what you find? Do you incorporate your DNA questions into your broader research planning?

All of these approaches are reasonable, but are they the best way to approach research planning with DNA?

I have emphasised in my previous articles that research planning in family history is all about being more systematic, so that we generate a more accurate family history and progress our research more quickly. We need to be careful that the questions we ask of DNA evidence are the right questions to achieve our goals. If you haven’t read those posts yet, you might like to do so before you read on.

Three ways to generate research questions

Asking the right research questions

Managing your research questions

Apply DNA evidence to your whole tree

One of the fundamental standards in family history research is that our conclusions must be reasonable and defensible. To achieve that we have to use the ‘best sources’ and conduct what is referred to as ‘a reasonably exhaustive search’. Last year I wrote a post arguing that DNA evidence is the best source, when used in combination with documentary sources and that DNA evidence is essential evidence.

One of the key reasons that DNA evidence is essential is that DNA can disprove documentary evidence.

On that basis, DNA evidence needs to be applied to the whole family tree.

By whole family tree I mean all four grandparent lines back to 3x or 4x great grandparents. Beyond that, autosomal DNA is currently unreliable.

Start with yourself

When we first began our family history, we started with ourselves and worked backward through time. We did this because we needed to start from a ‘solid foundation’ where identities and relationships were well established.

DNA is new evidence and this means we need to reapply this principle.

We need to go back to ourselves, apply DNA evidence and test whether what we currently think we know about our family history is still reasonable and defensible.

If we approach our DNA results with a specific question about someone a few generations back without first confirming the generations between that person and ourselves, then any conclusion we reached could be inaccurate.

Take a systematic approach

Step 1

First we need to examine whether or not our DNA test results confirm our existing conclusions.

Given the DNA evidence, are our conclusions about the identity of our ancestors and the relationships between them still reasonable and defensible? Are the ethnicity results consistent with where we think our ancestors came from?

If the evidence does not support our existing conclusions and if there are any inconsistencies, these issues need to be resolved before we move on to using DNA to fill gaps in our tree.

Start with yourself and move back through the generations.

My Tree Health Assessment tool will guide you through this process and help you document your results. You can download an article about this tool on my Free Stuff page.

Extract from a Tree Health Assessment family tree

The Leeds Method will help you group your DNA matches and examine whether there is evidence that you have the correct four grandparents in your own family tree. Apply the Leeds Method first, then check the trees of your matches to see if they correspond with the lines of your grandparents.

Use the analysis to update your documentation, such as your family tree. Add DNA as a source citation where it confirms or strengthens your existing conclusions. You may also need to revise your evidence summaries or evidence arguments (also known as proof summaries and evidence arguments) or write new ones.

Step 2

If the DNA evidence raises doubts about your conclusions or reveals inconsistencies, this should be used to generate research questions and hypotheses for your research plan(s).

For example, if you have close DNA matches for whom you cannot identify a relationship, or if you cannot identify any DNA matches for a particular family line.

Misattributed parentage and adoption may be the cause, but you need to investigate other possible causes too – such as flaws in your original research or errors in the documentary sources.

Create research tasks based on your questions and hypotheses. These may include additional DNA testing and documentary research. Prioritise your questions and tasks, working from your ‘solid foundations’. If you are using the Tree Health Assessment tool, this means starting where a yellow line branches off from a green line.

Revise your research plans or prepare research plans if you don’t already have them. Research plans based on family groups will usually suffice, but in some circumstances it may be appropriate to create a research plan for extended family.

Conduct more research and analysis, revisiting your research questions and hypotheses periodically.

When your research is concluded, update your family history documentation (such as your family tree, source citations, evidence summaries, evidence arguments).

Step 3

Now that you have used DNA to confirm your family tree, you can start asking other questions:

  • Are there gaps in your tree that DNA evidence may help you to fill?

For example, who was my father’s biological father?

  • Are there identities/relationships in your tree where the documentary evidence is inconclusive, that DNA may shed light on?

For example, does DNA support the rumour that X was the biological father of Y?

Use your research goals to prioritise the questions based on your interests and the potential they have for progressing your research.

The research process for Step 3 is similar to Step 2, except that a family group may not be the most appropriate planning unit for your research plans. You may need a research plan that applies to a group of DNA matches, or to an entire family line.

Final thoughts

DNA cannot answer all your research questions. If you are not clear about the limits of DNA evidence, you might like to read Diahan Southard’s article.

Focus on what will have the greatest benefit to your research. Don’t waste time pursuing matches that don’t contribute to your research goals, spending weeks analysing clusters and matches for a line that is already well-documented and for which the DNA is not showing any red flags.

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